Business in the Age of Mass Extinction

[Another piece I didn’t post from some months back. This was a frankly scary report from the UN about how humanity is destroying biodiversity. I attempted to lay out some options for how companies should think about this ongoing emergency that runs hand-in-hand with climate change. Hope comes through action…]

(Let’s hope we won’t be viewing most species this way in the future. Picture of AMNH, Flickr, Dano)

“Nature and its vital contributions to people … are deteriorating worldwide.” These are the opening words of the executive summary from a new, critical report from the United Nations. The New York Times put it another way in the headline to its article on the report: “Civilization Is Accelerating Extinction and Altering the Natural World at a Pace ‘Unprecedented in Human History.’”

While curling up into the fetal position and hiding under the covers in defeat may be your first instinct, let’s step back and ask and answer some key questions first.

What does the report say? Let me be clear that I have not read the full 1,500 pages yet. But the summary for policymakers is a pithy, if depressing, 40 pages. Read even the first couple pages and you’ll get it. The short version is that through a combination of human-caused climate change and the near complete occupation of the planet by humans, we’re destroying habitats and species at an unreal rate (similar to previous extinction events from, you know, asteroids). Besides some increase in agricultural and forestry production, most natural systems that support us — like rich soil carbon and pollinator health (i.e., bees) — are degraded. And current goals for conservation are not enough to stop this train wreck.

Why does it matter? Rather than fully tackle the nature of biodiversity, I’ll just refer to a good explainer here and say this: we humans are part of a web of life and everything that goes into the economy comes from that web and other natural resources. We’re currently knocking down the load-bearing walls of our own society. Without these natural inputs, the economy can’t thrive or survive; one shocking statistic from the UN report: up to $577 billion in U.S. “annual global crop output is at risk as a result of pollinator loss.” Without insects and bees, there’s no us.

What’s new here? On the one hand, not much. Back in 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Springwarned us that modern society and chemicals were killing birds and other species. The next decade saw global efforts to develop the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

But after a half-century of dire warnings, a couple things have changed. First, the scale of humanity has moved up an order of magnitude — global GDP is up ten-fold since the early 1960s and we’ve added 4.3 billion people. Second, this report is, according to one author, the most “exhaustive” look at interrelated challenges of species loss, water stress, food demand, and climate change. Third, like with climate change, the discussion has moved in a powerful and scary way from just “here’s what we should do about this problem to solve it” to “damage control” (see last line of The New York Times article). Scientists are telling us that we can’t save everything anymore and that the planet will be less abundant. But we can and must act to avoid complete collapse.

What can, or should, business do? This gets trickier. It’s not helpful to just throw up our hands and give up. On a farcical level, we could just race to get all the resources before they disappear. Sadly, that’s kind of what’s going on anyway in, for example, the Arctic. So to take a serious view, it’s time for radical changes in how we live our lives and run our businesses.

To oversimplify, the destruction of habitats stems from:

  • Our takeover of land for us to live on through relentless sprawl
  • Climate change which destroys areas permanently (see the imminent death of coral) or shifts where species can thrive
  • Degradation of land and sea through our material economy
  • Destruction of virgin forests for development of agriculture and forestry

So with that in mind, here are a few pathways to consider.

1. Understand your biodiversity footprint. This is a non-trivial exercise that mirrors a carbon footprint, only a lot more complicated. The gold standard on the topic is the Global Footprint Network and is a good place to start (as well as Project Drawdown for quantitative estimates on the best actions to help climate and planet). As a proxy for detailed footprint analysis, I suggest mapping out your business and its supply chain to understand your major land and sea impacts, including mining and metals, oil and gas exploration, coal production, fisheries, cattle grazing, and agricultural products like soy and palm oil that drive destruction of virgin forests. Once you have a basic sense of where your impacts lie, it helps you prioritize efforts and, for example, seek out suppliers of those high-impact inputs with better practices around land use, remediation, and protection.

2. Explore radical new business models. I see three key elements of what I call “the big pivot” mindset: decoupling, circularity, and regenerative models. The first means continuing to provide for more and more people, but decoupling the growth of production from material needs (energy, water, stuff). Reports like this signal we need to move much faster beyond even that worthy goal to circularity (closing the loops on all materials to find re-uses and dramatically reduce virgin material use) and regeneration through business. The prime examples of the latter are “regenerative agriculture” and “holistic grazing” which use farming and cattle to improve soil quality and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

3. Support aggressive policies and initiatives to protect habitats. While some industries and leaders want to open up lands for exploration, the rest of us should be in favor of aggressively protecting specific areas of the planet and establishing more national parks. The science on biodiversity “hotspots” is strong, so we know where we get the biggest species bang for the buck. Leaders should lobby for protection around the world; support policies that put a price on natural resources and eliminates subsidies for fossil fuels and industrial non-sustainable agriculture; endorse international aid to help compensate developing countries with less financial resources but abundant natural resources (so they don’t liquidate it); and publicly and financially support initiatives like National Geographic’s Last Wild Places and E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth Project to protect half of land and sea.

4. Help elect leaders who get it. It’s not enough to just support policies. There may be no worse time in human history for the pendulum to be swinging toward isolationism and nationalism. Extinction and climate change are the most global issues we face, and they require incredible levels of cooperation and trust. With countries as diverse as the U.S., Brazil, Hungary, and Poland embracing nationalist leaders, we’re moving away from global action. To be blunt, reveling in some short-term tax cuts is a poor reason to support leaders who do not understand or prioritize these global emergency issues.

5. Talk to consumers and other stakeholders. All of us have a role to play in the choices we make. We can all eat less industrial meat and avoid products with unsustainable palm oil, for example. But let’s be clear: the scale of what needs to happen on biodiversity and climate is now beyond individual choices. We need producers and governments to lead here. But companies can help consumers understand the choices they make and offer better alternatives (beyond mainly talking about these issues in sustainability reports like Unilever’s palm oil site). Few companies talk openly about these biodiversity issues on packaging or marketing, so it’s a real opportunity for new leadership.

6. Challenge the grow-at-all-costs economic model. This may be the toughest issue. Essentially, we’re overconsuming the planet. Now that we’re in emergency mode, we should be challenging the very precepts of our modern economic theory. How can we continue to pursue growth as defined solely by never-ending increases in total output (GDP) if we undermine the very support structure of that growth? I don’t have an easy answer here since economic growth also drives improvements in quality of life (if all the gains are shared broadly and not just co-opted by the very top of the pyramid). But we have to face harsh reality that our current model of measuring “success” in our economy and companies is coming at the expense of our ability to thrive.

Greta Thunberg, the preternaturally wise 16-year-old from Sweden who has started a global youth movement, spoke to world leaders about this growth question at the UN global climate summit in Poland in December: “You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. …I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.”

The news on the state of the planet is relentlessly bad. The science is stacking up and we’re really out of time for pretending business as usual will continue to work. I’ve always believed in business and its abilities to tackle big issues. But we need bravery to challenge the status quo now. What an amazing opportunity for real leaders to step up.

(This post first appeared in Harvard Business Review)
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